Harpswell selectmen may reverse restriction on public comment

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HARPSWELL — A month after she cited a clause in the town’s public participation policy to ban discussion of Harpswell’s relationship with School Administrative District 75, Board of Selectmen Chairwoman Elinor Multer has proposed removing the clause and reviewing other aspects of the policy.

Multer said at the board’s Aug. 4 meeting that she had received “several letters of strong complaint” after the July 7 ruling. Selectman Jim Henderson appealed that ruling, but Selectman Alison Hawkes, the third member of the board, supported Multer, so the ruling stood.

The action came to light in a story published July 27 by The Forecaster, which included a warning to the board from the Maine Civil Liberties Union about possible free speech consequences.

The ruling came after a heated discussion between Multer, Hawkes and resident Robert McIntyre concerning disability law compliance at Harpswell Community School. McIntyre fought to keep West Harpswell School open and led a recent petition drive to study withdrawing from SAD 75, and said he has been considering a second petition for withdrawal this fall.

Following public comment at the July 7 meeting, Multer moved to prohibit future discussion of the town’s relationship with the school district during the board’s public comment periods.

The rule she cited states that “It is neither the purpose nor the intent of Public Comment to provide an arena for the repeated airing of views on on-going controversial topics unless and until such time as a topic presents a question requiring immediate action or a decision by the Board of Selectmen, at which time the issue will be placed upon the agenda.”

The language was inserted last year, in response to previous discussion about SAD 75.

But on Aug. 4, in response to assertions that the ban on discussion could be unconstitutional, Multer proposed that passage be removed. “Never in my wildest dreams do I want to be responsible for cutting off anybody’s constitutional rights,” she said.

If those who have complained are right, she said, “and they may be, because it wasn’t something I’d thought of before … that (public comment) paragraph then has no meaning, because I can’t think of any meaning left to it.”

Multer also proposed removal of a passage that calls for “an additional comment period of up to 15 minutes per speaker” at the end of regular meetings. The public comment period at the beginning of each meeting, generally not more than five minutes per person, would remain.

Multer said the initial comment period, plus the public’s ability to speak on any agenda issue during the meeting, is “very fair and very adequate,” and that “if someone wants to go at length into something beyond that, they can certainly propose to put it on the agenda.”

She also said she wants an opinion from the Maine Municipal Association about whether the Board of Selectmen would have the constitutional right to ban campaign speeches from its meetings, either by candidates or those speaking on behalf of candidates.

The board decided to seek MMA’s opinion on Multer’s first and third proposals, and may discuss the matter as a whole at its next meeting, scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 18.

“I admire the fact that upon hearing other points of view, you’ve thought about this,” Henderson told Multer, saying he would be tempted to vote for her first proposal, but favored further discussion on her other proposals.

Hawkes said she does not favor changing the public participation policy.

She noted that she does not mind “if people come one time and have something to say. It’s the repeated saying of the same thing over and over and over again. And that’s not the intention of our meeting.”

McIntyre noted that another amendment to the public participation policy would be the fifth since January 2010, and that changes were made as “an attempt to restrict a certain type of discussion of which the chair was disapproving.”

Donna Frisoli, program manager of Harpswell Community TV, was the only resident besides McIntyre in the audience at that part of the meeting. She said the station has offered a soap box for more than seven years, and that McIntyre and others have used it. She encouraged interested people to call 833-2363.

“(If) they’d like to come up and do a public comment about something that happened at a selectmen’s meeting, I have an avenue for people to do that,” she said.

“It’s important to keep public comment as free as possible,” Frisoli said. “If it’s unpleasant, then I’m sorry it’s unpleasant, but being a selectman is a tough job.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.